Pewabic Pottery is a glazing studio and pottery school in Detroit, Michigan. A long-standing example of renowned local craftsmanship, Pewabic is the only historic, early 20th century pottery studio still in existence today. The tiles and decorative pottery produced by Pewabic made a mark on the world of art and architecture, and remain a recognizable symbol of the Arts and Crafts movement of post-industrial America.
Ceramic artist Mary Chase Perry and her partner, Horace Caulkins, founded the studio together in 1903. Caulkins was considered a kiln specialist. His expertise provided Pewabic Pottery with his one-of-a-kind invention, the “Revelation Kiln.” Originally created to supplement his dental supply business, Caulkins realized this portable, high heat oven might have a market with artists who worked in ceramics or china painting. The two entrepreneurs partnered to demonstrate and sell the kilns and went on to establish a new studio, eventually called Pewabic Pottery. The Chippewa word means “clay with a copper color.” It was chosen in remembrance of Perry’s childhood spent in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan near a mine named Pewabic.
Although the first major purchases from Pewabic were for vases and bowls, Perry was convinced the company should expand its horizons. Her friend and future husband, architect William Stratton, was working on a residential project in the Detroit area, and looking for new materials with which to decorate the home’s fireplace. Stratton gave the commission to Perry’s small company, and the result was a new direction for Pewabic. Architectural tiles became a large part of the business, and the founders began to consider expansion and the construction of a larger workspace. William Stratton designed the Tudor Revival studio built on East Jefferson Street in 1907, where Pewabic Pottery continues to operate today.
In keeping with the artistic philosophies of the time, Mary Chase Perry began to move away from the frilly intricacies of Art Noveau and the lifeless, mass-produced art of the Industrial Revolution. She expressed a desire to capture the best of her creativity in its simplest form. Her pottery and tile designs reflected this notion, and were in high demand by artists, builders and architects who were defining the Arts and Crafts era. There was a pull toward authenticity, handcrafting, and rawness that Pewabic provided with their individually designed pieces. Perry was constantly working to create new glazes, and in 1909 she finally achieved the iridescent finish she had been striving to discover. The glaze was said to glow. Critics praised its beauty, and declared the pieces priceless. Thus began the true prominence of Pewabic Pottery.
Residential and commercial orders came in from all over the country. Pewabic designed tiles and created murals for churches, state capitols, hotels, museums, office buildings, restaurants and private homes. The shimmering glazes of this small Detroit pottery studio adorned facades from Nebraska to New York. Some of the more notable projects completed by Pewabic over the years were St. Paul’s Cathedral in Detroit, the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, the Public Library of Detroit, Nebraska’s state capitol building in Lincoln, and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
After the death of Horace Caulkin, Perry continued to run the company, with the help of Caulkin’s widow. She remained the chief decision maker and artistic voice of the studio until her death in 1961, at the age of 94. At that time, the studio was given to Michigan State University in order to facilitate art education. In 1991, Pewabic Pottery was designated a National Historic Landmark, and continues to operate as a non-profit educational institute.
The impact of Pewabic tiles on the world of art and architecture is undeniable. This small Michigan business set a standard for simple, beautiful handiwork and simultaneously transformed the face of decorative architecture. The studio on East Jefferson continues to function, featuring a commercial store at the front of the building. Curious shoppers are obliged to sneak a peak behind the scenes, as the studio and workspace are accessible to visitors. Pewabic tiles remain in high-demand, furnishing private homes and public projects nation-wide with authentic designs and iridescent glazes created by Mary Chase Perry over 100 years ago.